Scientists observe the Earth grow a new layer under an Icelandic volcano

New research into an Icelandic eruption has shed light on how the Earth’s crust forms, according to a paper published today in Nature.

When the Bárðarbunga volcano, which is buried beneath Iceland’s Vatnajökull ice cap, reawakened in August 2014, scientists had a rare opportunity to monitor how the magma flowed through cracks in the rock away from the volcano. The molten rock forms vertical sheet-like features known as dykes, which force the surrounding rock apart.

Study co-author Professor Andy Hooper from the Centre for Observation and Modelling of Earthquakes, volcanoes and Tectonics (COMET) at the University of Leeds explained: “New crust forms where two tectonic plates are moving away from each other. Mostly this happens beneath the oceans, where it is difficult to observe.

“However, in Iceland this happens beneath dry land. The events leading to the eruption in August 2014 are the first time that such a rifting episode has occurred there and been observed with modern tools, like GPS and satellite radar.”

Although it has a long history of eruptions, Bárðarbunga has been increasingly restless since 2005. There was a particularly dynamic period in August and September this year, when more than 22,000 earthquakes were recorded in or around the volcano in just four weeks, due to stress being released as magma forced its way through the rock.

Using GPS and satellite measurements, the team were able to track the path of the magma for over 45km before it reached a point where it began to erupt, and continues to do so to this day. The rate of dyke propagation was variable and slowed as the magma reached natural barriers, which were overcome by the build-up of pressure, creating a new segment.

The dyke grows in segments, breaking through from one to the next by the build up of pressure. This explains how focused upwelling of magma under central volcanoes is effectively redistributed over large distances to create new upper crust at divergent plate boundaries, the authors conclude.

As well as the dyke, the team found ‘ice cauldrons’ – shallow depressions in the ice with circular crevasses, where the base of the glacier had been melted by magma. In addition, radar measurements showed that the ice inside Bárðarbunga’s crater had sunk by 16m, as the volcano floor collapsed.

COMET PhD student Karsten Spaans from the University of Leeds, a co-author of the study, added: “Using radar measurements from space, we can form an image of caldera movement occurring in one day. Usually we expect to see just noise in the image, but we were amazed to see up to 55cm of subsidence.”

Like other liquids, magma flows along the path of least resistance, which explains why the dyke at Bárðarbunga changed direction as it progressed. Magma flow was influenced mostly by the lie of the land to start with, but as it moved away from the steeper slopes, the influence of plate movements became more important.

Summarising the findings, Professor Hooper said: “Our observations of this event showed that the magma injected into the crust took an incredibly roundabout path and proceeded in fits and starts.

“Initially we were surprised at this complexity, but it turns out we can explain all the twists and turns with a relatively simple model, which considers just the pressure of rock and ice above, and the pull exerted by the plates moving apart.”

The paper ‘Segmented lateral dyke growth in a rifting event at Bárðarbunga volcanic system, Iceland’ is published in Nature on 15 December 2014.

The research leading to these results has received funding from the European Community’s Seventh Framework Programme under Grant Agreement No. 308377 (Project FUTUREVOLC)

UW team explores large, restless volcanic field in Chile

If Brad Singer knew for sure what was happening three miles under an odd-shaped lake in the Andes, he might be less eager to spend a good part of his career investigating a volcanic field that has erupted 36 times during the last 25,000 years. As he leads a large scientific team exploring a region in the Andes called Laguna del Maule, Singer hopes the area remains quiet.

But the primary reason to expend so much effort on this area boils down to one fact: The rate of uplift is among the highest ever observed by satellite measurement for a volcano that is not actively erupting.

That uplift is almost definitely due to a large intrusion of magma — molten rock — beneath the volcanic complex. For seven years, an area larger than the city of Madison has been rising by 10 inches per year.

That rapid rise provides a major scientific opportunity: to explore a mega-volcano before it erupts. That effort, and the hazard posed by the restless magma reservoir beneath Laguna del Maule, are described in a major research article in the December issue of the Geological Society of America’s GSA Today.

“We’ve always been looking at these mega-eruptions in the rear-view mirror,” says Singer. “We look at the lava, dust and ash, and try to understand what happened before the eruption. Since these huge eruptions are rare, that’s usually our only option. But we look at the steady uplift at Laguna del Maule, which has a history of regular eruptions, combined with changes in gravity, electrical conductivity and swarms of earthquakes, and we suspect that conditions necessary to trigger another eruption are gathering force.”

Laguna del Maule looks nothing like a classic, cone-shaped volcano, since the high-intensity erosion caused by heavy rain and snow has carried most of the evidence to the nearby Pacific Ocean. But the overpowering reason for the absence of “typical volcano cones” is the nature of the molten rock underground. It’s called rhyolite, and it’s the most explosive type of magma on the planet.

The eruption of a rhyolite volcano is too quick and violent to build up a cone. Instead, this viscous, water-rich magma often explodes into vast quantities of ash that can form deposits hundreds of yards deep, followed by a slower flow of glassy magma that can be tens of yards tall and measure more than a mile in length.

The next eruption could be in the size range of Mount St. Helens — or it could be vastly bigger, Singer says. “We know that over the past million years or so, several eruptions at Laguna del Maule or nearby volcanoes have been more than 100 times larger than Mount St. Helens,” he says. “Those are rare, but they are possible.” Such a mega-eruption could change the weather, disrupt the ecosystem and damage the economy.

Trying to anticipate what Laguna del Maule holds in store, Singer is heading a new $3 million, five-year effort sponsored by the National Science Foundation to document its behavior before an eruption. With colleagues from Chile, Argentina, Canada, Singapore, and Cornell and Georgia Tech universities, he is masterminding an effort to build a scientific model of the underground forces that could lead to eruption. “This model should capture how this system has evolved in the crust at all scales, from the microscopic to basinwide, over the last 100,000 years,” Singer says. “It’s like a movie from the past to the present and into the future.”

Over the next five years, Singer says he and 30 colleagues will “throw everything, including the kitchen sink, at the problem — geology, geochemistry, geochronology and geophysics — to help measure, and then model, what’s going on.”

One key source of information on volcanoes is seismic waves. Ground shaking triggered by the movement of magma can signal an impending eruption. Team member Clifford Thurber, a seismologist and professor of geoscience at UW-Madison, wants to use distant earthquakes to locate the underground magma body.

As many as 50 seismometers will eventually be emplaced above and around the magma at Laguna del Maule, in the effort to create a 3-D image of Earth’s crust in the area.

By tracking multiple earthquakes over several years, Thurber and his colleagues want to pinpoint the size and location of the magma body — roughly estimated as an oval measuring five kilometers (3.1 miles) by 10 kilometers (6.2 miles).

Each seismometer will record the travel time of earthquake waves originating within a few thousand kilometers, Thurber explains. Since soft rock transmits sound less efficiently than hard rock, “we expect that waves that pass through the presumed magma body will be delayed,” Thurber says. “It’s very simple. It’s like a CT scan, except instead of density we are looking at seismic wave velocity.”

As Singer, who has been visiting Laguna del Maule since 1998, notes, “The rate of uplift — among the highest ever observed — has been sustained for seven years, and we have discovered a large, fluid-rich zone in the crust under the lake using electrical resistivity methods. Thus, there are not many possible explanations other than a big, active body of magma at a shallow depth.”

The expanding body of magma could freeze in place — or blow its top, he says. “One thing we know for sure is that the surface cannot continue rising indefinitely.”

Prehistoric landslide discovery rivals largest known on surface of Earth

David Hacker, Ph.D., points to pseudotachylyte layers and veins within the Markagunt gravity slide. -  Photo courtesy of David Hacker
David Hacker, Ph.D., points to pseudotachylyte layers and veins within the Markagunt gravity slide. – Photo courtesy of David Hacker

A catastrophic landslide, one of the largest known on the surface of the Earth, took place within minutes in southwestern Utah more than 21 million years ago, reports a Kent State University geologist in a paper being to be published in the November issue of the journal Geology.

The Markagunt gravity slide, the size of three Ohio counties, is one of the two largest known continental landslides (larger slides exist on the ocean floors). David Hacker, Ph.D., associate professor of geology at the Trumbull campus, and two colleagues discovered and mapped the scope of the Markagunt slide over the past two summers.

His colleagues and co-authors are Robert F. Biek of the Utah Geological Survey and Peter D. Rowley of Geologic Mapping, Inc. of New Harmony, Utah.

Geologists had known about smaller portions of the Markagunt slide before the recent mapping showed its enormous extent. Hiking through the wilderness areas of the Dixie National Forest and Bureau of Land Management land, Hacker identified features showing that the Markagunt landslide was much bigger than previously known.

The landslide took place in an area between what is now Bryce Canyon National Park and the town of Beaver, Utah. It covered about 1,300 square miles, an area as big as Ohio’s Cuyahoga, Portage and Summit counties combined.

Its rival in size, the “Heart Mountain slide,” which took place around 50 million years ago in northwest Wyoming, was discovered in the 1940s and is a classic feature in geology textbooks.

The Markagunt could prove to be much larger than the Heart Mountain slide, once it is mapped in greater detail.

“Large-scale catastrophic collapses of volcanic fields such as these are rare but represent the largest known landslides on the surface of the Earth,” the authors wrote.

The length of the landslide – over 55 miles – also shows that it was as fast moving as it was massive, Hacker said. Evidence showing that the slide was catastrophic – occurring within minutes – included the presence of pseudotachylytes, rocks that were melted into glass by the immense friction. Any animals living in its path would have been quickly overrun.

Evidence of the slide is not readily apparent to visitors today. “Looking at it, you wouldn’t even recognize it as a landslide,” he said. But internal features of the slide, exposed in outcrops, yielded evidence such as jigsaw puzzle rock fractures and shear zones, along with the pseudotachylytes.

Hacker, who studies catastrophic geological events, said the slide originated when a volcanic field consisting of many strato-volcanoes, a type similar to Mount St. Helens in the Cascade Mountains, which erupted in 1980, collapsed and produced the massive landslide.

The collapse may have been caused by the vertical inflation of deeper magma chambers that fed the volcanoes. Hacker has spent many summers in Utah mapping geologic features of the Pine Valley Mountains south of the Markagunt where he has found evidence of similar, but smaller slides from magma intrusions called laccoliths.

What is learned about the mega-landslide could help geologists better understand these extreme types of events. The Markagunt and the Heart Mountain slides document for the first time how large portions of ancient volcanic fields have collapsed, Hacker said, representing “a new class of hazards in volcanic fields.”

While the Markagunt landslide was a rare event, it shows the magnitude of what could happen in modern volcanic fields like the Cascades. “We study events from the geologic past to better understand what could happen in the future,” he said.

The next steps in the research, conducted with his co-authors on the Geology paper, will be to continue mapping the slide, collect samples from the base for structural analysis and date the pseudotachylytes.

Hacker, who earned his Ph.D. in geology at Kent State, joined the faculty in 2000 after working for an environmental consulting company. He is co-author of the book “Earth’s Natural Hazards: Understanding Natural Disasters and Catastrophes,” published in 2010.

View the abstract of the Geology paper, available online now.

Learn more about research at Kent State: http://www.kent.edu/research

Magma pancakes beneath Lake Toba

The tremendous amounts of lava that are emitted during super-eruptions accumulate over millions of years prior to the event in the Earth’s crust. These reservoirs consist of magma that intrudes into the crust in the form of numerous horizontally oriented sheets resting on top of each other like a pile of pancakes.

A team of geoscientists from Novosibirsk, Paris and Potsdam presents these results in the current issue of Science (2014/10/31). The scientists investigate the question on where the tremendous amounts of material that are ejected to from huge calderas during super-eruptions actually originate. Here we are not dealing with large volcanic eruptions of the size of Pinatubo of Mount St. Helens, here we are talking about extreme events: The Toba-caldera in the Sumatra subduction zone in Indonesia originated from one of the largest volcanic eruption in recent Earth history, about 74,000 years ago. It emitted the enormous amount of 2,800 cubic kilometers of volcanic material with a dramatic global impact on climate and environment. Hereby, the 80 km long Lake Toba was formed.

Geoscientists were interested in finding out: How can the gigantic amounts of eruptible material required to form such a super volcano accumulate in the Earth’s crust. Was this a singular event thousands of years ago or can it happen again?

Researchers from the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences successfully installed a seismometer network in the Toba area to investigate these questions and provided the data to all participating scientists via the GEOFON data archive. GFZ scientist, Christoph Sens-Schönfelder, a co-author of the study explains: “With a new seismological method we were able to investigate the internal structure of the magma reservoir beneath the Toba-caldera. We found that the middle crust below the Toba supervolcano is horizontally layered.” The answer thus lies in the structure of the magma reservoir. Here, below 7 kilometers the crust consists of many, mostly horizontal, magmatic intrusions still containing molten material.

New seismological technique

It was already suspected that the large volume of magma ejected during the supervolcanic eruption had slowly accumulated over the last few millions of years in the form of consequently emplaced intrusions. This could now be confirmed with the results of field measurements. The GFZ scientists used a novel seismological method for this purpose. Over a six-month period they recorded the ambient seismic noise, the natural vibrations which usually are regarded as disturbing signals. With a statistical approach they analyzed the data and discovered that the velocity of seismic waves beneath Toba depends on the direction in which the waves shear the Earth’s crust. Above 7 kilometers depth the deposits of the last eruption formed a zone of low velocities. Below this depth the seismic anisotropy is caused by horizontally layered intrusions that structure the reservoir like a pile of pancakes. This is reflected in the seismic data.

Supervolcanoes

Not only in Indonesia, but also in other parts of the world there are such supervoclcanoes, which erupt only every couple of hundred thousand years but then in gigantic eruptions. Because of their size those volcanoes do not build up mountains but manifest themselves with their huge carter formed during the eruption – the caldera. Other known supervolcanoes include the area of the Yellow-Stone-Park, volcanoes in the Andes, and the caldera of Lake-Taupo in New Zealand. The present study helps to better understand the processes that lead to such super-eruptions.

Icelandic volcano sits on massive magma hot spot

This image shows the Holuhraun fissure eruption on the flanks of the Bárðarbunga volcano in central Iceland on Oct. 4, 2014, showing the development of a lava lake in the foreground. Vapor clouds over the lava lake are caused by degassing of volatile-rich basaltic magma. -  Morten S. Riishuus, Nordic Volcanological Institute
This image shows the Holuhraun fissure eruption on the flanks of the Bárðarbunga volcano in central Iceland on Oct. 4, 2014, showing the development of a lava lake in the foreground. Vapor clouds over the lava lake are caused by degassing of volatile-rich basaltic magma. – Morten S. Riishuus, Nordic Volcanological Institute

Spectacular eruptions at Bárðarbunga volcano in central Iceland have been spewing lava continuously since Aug. 31. Massive amounts of erupting lava are connected to the destruction of supercontinents and dramatic changes in climate and ecosystems.

New research from UC Davis and Aarhus University in Denmark shows that high mantle temperatures miles beneath the Earth’s surface are essential for generating such large amounts of magma. In fact, the scientists found that the Bárðarbunga volcano lies directly above the hottest portion of the North Atlantic mantle plume.

The study, published online Oct. 5 and appearing in the November issue of Nature Geoscience, comes from Charles Lesher, professor of Earth and Planetary Science at UC Davis and a visiting professor at Aarhus University, and his former PhD student, Eric Brown, now a post-doctoral scholar at Aarhus University.

“From time to time the Earth’s mantle belches out huge quantities of magma on a scale unlike anything witnessed in historic times,” Lesher said. “These events provide unique windows into the internal working of our planet.”

Such fiery events have produced large igneous provinces throughout Earth’s history. They are often attributed to upwelling of hot, deeply sourced mantle material, or “mantle plumes.”

Recent models have dismissed the role of mantle plumes in the formation of large igneous provinces, ascribing their origin instead to chemical anomalies in the shallow mantle.

Based on the volcanic record in and around Iceland over the last 56 million years and numerical modeling, Brown and Lesher show that high mantle temperatures are essential for generating the large magma volumes that gave rise to the North Atlantic large igneous provinces bordering Greenland and northern Europe.

Their findings further substantiate the critical role of mantle plumes in forming large igneous provinces.

“Our work offers new tools to constrain the physical and chemical conditions in the mantle responsible for large igneous provinces,” Brown said. “There’s little doubt that the mantle is composed of different types of chemical compounds, but this is not the dominant factor. Rather, locally high mantle temperatures are the key ingredient.”

The research was supported by grants from the US National Science Foundation and by the Niels Bohr Professorship funded by Danish National Research Foundation.

Read the full study at http://www.nature.com/ngeo/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/ngeo2264.html.

Mysterious Midcontinent Rift is a geological hybrid

The volcanic rocks of the 1.1 billion-year-old Midcontinent Rift play a prominent role in the natural beauty of Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior. -  Seth Stein, Northwestern University
The volcanic rocks of the 1.1 billion-year-old Midcontinent Rift play a prominent role in the natural beauty of Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior. – Seth Stein, Northwestern University

An international team of geologists has a new explanation for how the Midwest’s biggest geological feature — an ancient and giant 2,000-mile-long underground crack that starts in Lake Superior and runs south to Oklahoma and to Alabama — evolved.

Scientists from Northwestern University, the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), the University of Gottingen in Germany and the University of Oklahoma report that the 1.1 billion-year-old Midcontinent Rift is a geological hybrid, having formed in three stages: it started as an enormous narrow crack in the Earth’s crust; that space then filled with an unusually large amount of volcanic rock; and, finally, the igneous rocks were forced to the surface, forming the beautiful scenery seen today in the Lake Superior area of the Upper Midwest.

The rift produced some of the Midwest’s most interesting geology and scenery, but there has never been a good explanation for what caused it. Inspired by vacations to Lake Superior, Seth and Carol A. Stein, a husband-and-wife team from Northwestern and UIC, have been determined to learn more in recent years.

Their study, which utilized cutting-edge geologic software and seismic images of rock located below the Earth’s surface in areas of the rift, will be presented Oct. 20 at the Geological Society of America annual meeting in Vancouver.

“The Midcontinent Rift is a very strange beast,” said the study’s lead author, Carol Stein, professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at UIC. “Rifts are long, narrow cracks splitting the Earth’s crust, with some volcanic rocks in them that rise to fill the cracks. Large igneous provinces, or LIPs, are huge pools of volcanic rocks poured out at the Earth’s surface. The Midcontinent Rift is both of these — like a hybrid animal.”

“Geologists call it a rift because it’s long and narrow,” explained Seth Stein, a co-author of the study, “but it’s got much more volcanic rock inside it than any other rift on a continent, so it’s also a LIP. We’ve been wondering for a long time how this could have happened.” He is the William Deering Professor of Geological Sciences at the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences.

This question is one of those that EarthScope, a major National Science Foundation program involving geologists from across the U.S., seeks to answer. In this case, the team used images of the Earth at depth from seismic experiments across Lake Superior and EarthScope surveys of other parts of the Midcontinent Rift. The images show the rock layers at depth, much as X-ray photos show the bones in people’s bodies.

In reviewing the images, the researchers found the Midcontinent Rift appeared to evolve in three stages.

“First, the rocks were pulled apart, forming a rift valley,” Carol Stein said. “As the rift was pulling apart, magma flowed into the developing crack. After about 10 million years, the crack stopped growing, but more magma kept pouring out on top. Older magma layers sunk under the weight of new magma, so the hole kept deepening. Eventually the magma ran out, leaving a large igneous province — a 20-mile-thick pile of volcanic rocks. Millions of years later, the rift got squeezed as a new supercontinent reassembled, which made the Earth’s crust under the rift thicker.”

To test this idea, the Steins turned to Jonas Kley, professor of geology at Germany’s Gottingen University, their host during a research year in Germany sponsored by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.

Kley used software that allows geologic time to run backwards. “We start with the rocks as they are today,” Kley explained, “and then undo movement on faults and vertical movements. It’s like reconstructing a car crash. When we’re done we have a picture of what happened and when. This lets us test ideas and see if they work.”

Kley’s analysis showed that the three-stage history made sense — the Midcontinent Rift started as a rift and then evolved into a large igneous province. The last stage brought rocks in the Lake Superior area to the surface.

Other parts of the picture fit together nicely, the Steins said. David Hindle, also from Gottingen University, used a computer model to show that the rift’s shape seen in the seismic images results from the crust bending under weight of magma.

Randy Keller, a professor and director of the Oklahoma Geological Survey, found that the weight of the dense magma filling the rift explains the stronger pull of gravity measured above the rift. He points out that these variations in the gravity field are the major evidence used to map the extent of the rift.

“It’s funny,” Seth Stein mused. “Carol and I have been living in Chicago for more than 30 years. We often have gone up to Lake Superior for vacations but didn’t think much about the geology. It’s only in the past few years that we realized there’s a great story there and started working on it. There are many studies going on today, which will give more results in the next few years.”

The Steins now are working with other geologists to help park rangers and teachers tell this story to the public. For example, a good way to think about how rifts work is to observe what happens if you pull both ends of a Mars candy bar: the top chocolate layer breaks, and the inside stretches.

“Sometimes people think that exciting geology only happens in places like California,” Seth Stein said. “We hope results like this will encourage young Midwesterners to study geology and make even further advances.”

Researcher receives $1.2 million to create real-time seismic imaging system

This is Dr. WenZhan Song. -  Georgia State University
This is Dr. WenZhan Song. – Georgia State University

Dr. WenZhan Song, a professor in the Department of Computer Science at Georgia State University, has received a four-year, $1.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation to create a real-time seismic imaging system using ambient noise.

This imaging system for shallow earth structures could be used to study and monitor the sustainability of the subsurface, or area below the surface, and potential hazards of geological structures. Song and his collaborators, Yao Xie of the Georgia Institute of Technology and Fan-Chi Lin of the University of Utah, will use ambient noise to image the subsurface of geysers in Yellowstone National Park.

“This project is basically imaging what’s underground in a situation where there’s no active source, like an earthquake. We’re using background noise,” Song said. “At Yellowstone, for instance, people visit there and cars drive by. All that could generate signals that are penetrating through the ground. We essentially use that type of information to tap into a very weak signal to infer the image of underground. This is very frontier technology today.”

The system will be made up of a large network of wireless sensors that can perform in-network computing of 3-D images of the shallow earth structure that are based solely on ambient noise.

Real-time ambient noise seismic imaging technology could also inform homeowners if the subsurface below their home, which can change over time, is stable or will sink beneath them.

This technology can also be used in circumstances that don’t need to rely on ambient noise but have an active source that produces signals that can be detected by wireless sensors. It could be used for real-time monitoring and developing early warning systems for natural hazards, such as volcanoes, by determining how close magma is to the surface. It could also benefit oil exploration, which uses methods such as hydrofracturing, in which high-pressure water breaks rocks and allows natural gas to flow more freely from underground.

“As they do that, it’s critical to monitor that in real time so you can know what’s going on under the ground and not cause damage,” Song said. “It’s a very promising technology, and we’re helping this industry reduce costs significantly because previously they only knew what was going on under the subsurface many days and even months later. We could reduce this to seconds.”

Until now, data from oil exploration instruments had to be manually retrieved and uploaded into a centralized database, and it could take days or months to process and analyze the data.

The research team plans to have a field demonstration of the system in Yellowstone and image the subsurface of some of the park’s geysers. The results will be shared with Yellowstone management, rangers and staff. Yellowstone, a popular tourist attraction, is a big volcano that has been dormant for a long time, but scientists are concerned it could one day pose potential hazards.

In the past several years, Song has been developing a Real-time In-situ Seismic Imaging (RISI) system using active sources, under the support of another $1.8 million NSF grant. His lab has built a RISI system prototype that is ready for deployment. The RISI system can be implemented as a general field instrumentation platform for various geophysical imaging applications and incorporate new geophysical data processing and imaging algorithms.

The RISI system can be applied to a wide range of geophysical exploration topics, such as hydrothermal circulation, oil exploration, mining safety and mining resource monitoring, to monitor the uncertainty inherent to the exploration and production process, reduce operation costs and mitigate the environmental risks. The business and social impact is broad and significant. Song is seeking business investors and partners to commercialize this technology.

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For more information about the project, visit http://sensorweb.cs.gsu.edu/?q=ANSI.

Early Earth less hellish than previously thought

Calvin Miller is shown at the Kerlingarfjoll volcano in central Iceland. Some geologists have proposed that the early Earth may have resembled regions like this. -  Tamara Carley
Calvin Miller is shown at the Kerlingarfjoll volcano in central Iceland. Some geologists have proposed that the early Earth may have resembled regions like this. – Tamara Carley

Conditions on Earth for the first 500 million years after it formed may have been surprisingly similar to the present day, complete with oceans, continents and active crustal plates.

This alternate view of Earth’s first geologic eon, called the Hadean, has gained substantial new support from the first detailed comparison of zircon crystals that formed more than 4 billion years ago with those formed contemporaneously in Iceland, which has been proposed as a possible geological analog for early Earth.

The study was conducted by a team of geologists directed by Calvin Miller, the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Vanderbilt University, and published online this weekend by the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters in a paper titled, “Iceland is not a magmatic analog for the Hadean: Evidence from the zircon record.”

From the early 20th century up through the 1980’s, geologists generally agreed that conditions during the Hadean period were utterly hostile to life. Inability to find rock formations from the period led them to conclude that early Earth was hellishly hot, either entirely molten or subject to such intense asteroid bombardment that any rocks that formed were rapidly remelted. As a result, they pictured the surface of the Earth as covered by a giant “magma ocean.”

This perception began to change about 30 years ago when geologists discovered zircon crystals (a mineral typically associated with granite) with ages exceeding 4 billion years old preserved in younger sandstones. These ancient zircons opened the door for exploration of the Earth’s earliest crust. In addition to the radiometric dating techniques that revealed the ages of these ancient zircons, geologists used other analytical techniques to extract information about the environment in which the crystals formed, including the temperature and whether water was present.

Since then zircon studies have revealed that the Hadean Earth was not the uniformly hellish place previously imagined, but during some periods possessed an established crust cool enough so that surface water could form – possibly on the scale of oceans.

Accepting that the early Earth had a solid crust and liquid water (at least at times), scientists have continued to debate the nature of that crust and the processes that were active at that time: How similar was the Hadean Earth to what we see today?

Two schools of thought have emerged: One argues that Hadean Earth was surprisingly similar to the present day. The other maintains that, although it was less hostile than formerly believed, early Earth was nonetheless a foreign-seeming and formidable place, similar to the hottest, most extreme, geologic environments of today. A popular analog is Iceland, where substantial amounts of crust are forming from basaltic magma that is much hotter than the magmas that built most of Earth’s current continental crust.

“We reasoned that the only concrete evidence for what the Hadean was like came from the only known survivors: zircon crystals – and yet no one had investigated Icelandic zircon to compare their telltale compositions to those that are more than 4 billion years old, or with zircon from other modern environments,” said Miller.

In 2009, Vanderbilt doctoral student Tamara Carley, who has just accepted the position of assistant professor at Layfayette College, began collecting samples from volcanoes and sands derived from erosion of Icelandic volcanoes. She separated thousands of zircon crystals from the samples, which cover the island’s regional diversity and represent its 18 million year history.

Working with Miller and doctoral student Abraham Padilla at Vanderbilt, Joe Wooden at Stanford University, Axel Schmitt and Rita Economos from UCLA, Ilya Bindeman at the University of Oregon and Brennan Jordan at the University of South Dakota, Carley analyzed about 1,000 zircon crystals for their age and elemental and isotopic compositions. She then searched the literature for all comparable analyses of Hadean zircon and for representative analyses of zircon from other modern environments.

“We discovered that Icelandic zircons are quite distinctive from crystals formed in other locations on modern Earth. We also found that they formed in magmas that are remarkably different from those in which the Hadean zircons grew,” said Carley.

Most importantly, their analysis found that Icelandic zircons grew from much hotter magmas than Hadean zircons. Although surface water played an important role in the generation of both Icelandic and Hadean crystals, in the Icelandic case the water was extremely hot when it interacted with the source rocks while the Hadean water-rock interactions were at significantly lower temperatures.

“Our conclusion is counterintuitive,” said Miller. “Hadean zircons grew from magmas rather similar to those formed in modern subduction zones, but apparently even ‘cooler’ and ‘wetter’ than those being produced today.”

Textbook theory behind volcanoes may be wrong

In the typical textbook picture, volcanoes, such as those that are forming the Hawaiian islands, erupt when magma gushes out as narrow jets from deep inside Earth. But that picture is wrong, according to a new study from researchers at Caltech and the University of Miami in Florida.

New seismology data are now confirming that such narrow jets don’t actually exist, says Don Anderson, the Eleanor and John R. McMillian Professor of Geophysics, Emeritus, at Caltech. In fact, he adds, basic physics doesn’t support the presence of these jets, called mantle plumes, and the new results corroborate those fundamental ideas.

“Mantle plumes have never had a sound physical or logical basis,” Anderson says. “They are akin to Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Just So Stories’ about how giraffes got their long necks.”

Anderson and James Natland, a professor emeritus of marine geology and geophysics at the University of Miami, describe their analysis online in the September 8 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

According to current mantle-plume theory, Anderson explains, heat from Earth’s core somehow generates narrow jets of hot magma that gush through the mantle and to the surface. The jets act as pipes that transfer heat from the core, and how exactly they’re created isn’t clear, he says. But they have been assumed to exist, originating near where the Earth’s core meets the mantle, almost 3,000 kilometers underground-nearly halfway to the planet’s center. The jets are theorized to be no more than about 300 kilometers wide, and when they reach the surface, they produce hot spots.

While the top of the mantle is a sort of fluid sludge, the uppermost layer is rigid rock, broken up into plates that float on the magma-bearing layers. Magma from the mantle beneath the plates bursts through the plate to create volcanoes. As the plates drift across the hot spots, a chain of volcanoes forms-such as the island chains of Hawaii and Samoa.

“Much of solid-Earth science for the past 20 years-and large amounts of money-have been spent looking for elusive narrow mantle plumes that wind their way upward through the mantle,” Anderson says.

To look for the hypothetical plumes, researchers analyze global seismic activity. Everything from big quakes to tiny tremors sends seismic waves echoing through Earth’s interior. The type of material that the waves pass through influences the properties of those waves, such as their speeds. By measuring those waves using hundreds of seismic stations installed on the surface, near places such as Hawaii, Iceland, and Yellowstone National Park, researchers can deduce whether there are narrow mantle plumes or whether volcanoes are simply created from magma that’s absorbed in the sponge-like shallower mantle.

No one has been able to detect the predicted narrow plumes, although the evidence has not been conclusive. The jets could have simply been too thin to be seen, Anderson says. Very broad features beneath the surface have been interpreted as plumes or super-plumes, but, still, they’re far too wide to be considered narrow jets.

But now, thanks in part to more seismic stations spaced closer together and improved theory, analysis of the planet’s seismology is good enough to confirm that there are no narrow mantle plumes, Anderson and Natland say. Instead, data reveal that there are large, slow, upward-moving chunks of mantle a thousand kilometers wide.

In the mantle-plume theory, Anderson explains, the heat that is transferred upward via jets is balanced by the slower downward motion of cooled, broad, uniform chunks of mantle. The behavior is similar to that of a lava lamp, in which blobs of wax are heated from below and then rise before cooling and falling. But a fundamental problem with this picture is that lava lamps require electricity, he says, and that is an outside energy source that an isolated planet like Earth does not have.

The new measurements suggest that what is really happening is just the opposite: Instead of narrow jets, there are broad upwellings, which are balanced by narrow channels of sinking material called slabs. What is driving this motion is not heat from the core, but cooling at Earth’s surface. In fact, Anderson says, the behavior is the regular mantle convection first proposed more than a century ago by Lord Kelvin. When material in the planet’s crust cools, it sinks, displacing material deeper in the mantle and forcing it upward.

“What’s new is incredibly simple: upwellings in the mantle are thousands of kilometers across,” Anderson says. The formation of volcanoes then follows from plate tectonics-the theory of how Earth’s plates move and behave. Magma, which is less dense than the surrounding mantle, rises until it reaches the bottom of the plates or fissures that run through them. Stresses in the plates, cracks, and other tectonic forces can squeeze the magma out, like how water is squeezed out of a sponge. That magma then erupts out of the surface as volcanoes. The magma comes from within the upper 200 kilometers of the mantle and not thousands of kilometers deep, as the mantle-plume theory suggests.

“This is a simple demonstration that volcanoes are the result of normal broad-scale convection and plate tectonics,” Anderson says. He calls this theory “top-down tectonics,” based on Kelvin’s initial principles of mantle convection. In this picture, the engine behind Earth’s interior processes is not heat from the core but cooling at the planet’s surface. This cooling and plate tectonics drives mantle convection, the cooling of the core, and Earth’s magnetic field. Volcanoes and cracks in the plate are simply side effects.

The results also have an important consequence for rock compositions-notably the ratios of certain isotopes, Natland says. According to the mantle-plume idea, the measured compositions derive from the mixing of material from reservoirs separated by thousands of kilometers in the upper and lower mantle. But if there are no mantle plumes, then all of that mixing must have happened within the upwellings and nearby mantle in Earth’s top 1,000 kilometers.

The paper is titled “Mantle updrafts and mechanisms of oceanic volcanism.”

Mantle plumes crack continents

In some parts of the Earth, material rises upwards like a column from the boundary layer of the Earth’s core and the lower mantel to just below the Earth’s crust hundreds of kilometres above. Halted by the resistance of the hard crust and lithospheric mantle, the flow of material becomes wider, taking on a mushroom-like shape. Specialists call these magma columns “mantle plumes” or simply “plumes”.

Are mantel plumes responsible for the African rift system?


Geologists believe that plumes are not just responsible for creating volcanoes outside of tectonically active areas – they can also break up continents. The scientists offer the Danakil Depression (the lowlands in the Ethiopia-Eritrea-Djibouti triangle) as an example of this. This “triple junction” is extremely tectonically and volcanically active. Geologists believe that the so-called Afar plume is rising up below it and has created a rift system that forks into the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden and Africa’s Great Rift Valley. However, the sheer length of time required, geologically speaking, for this process to take place, means that nobody is able to confirm or disprove with absolute certainty that the force of a plume causes continental breakup.

Simulations becoming more realistic


Evgueni Burov, a Professor at the University of Paris VI, and Taras Gerya, Professor of Geophysics at ETH Zurich, have now taken a step closer to solving this geological mystery with a new computer model. Their paper has recently been published in the journal Nature. The two researchers conducted numerical experiments to reproduce the Earth’s surface in high-resolution 3D.

These simulations show that the rising flow of material is strong enough to cause continental breakup if the tectonic plate is under (weak) tensile stress. “The force exerted by a plume on a plate is actually too weak to break it up,” says Gerya. In experiments using simple models, the researchers allowed the plumes to hit an unstressed plate, which did not cause it to break, but merely formed a round hump. However, when the geophysicists modelled the same process with a plate under weak tensile stress, it broke apart, forming a crevice and rift system like the ones found around the world.

“The process can be compared to a taut piece of plastic film. Weak, pointed force is enough to tear the film, but if the film is not pulled taut, it is extremely difficult to tear.” This mechanism has already been proposed in the past as a possible model for explaining continental breakup, but had never been outlined in plausible terms before now.

First high-resolution simulations

“We are the first to create such a high-resolution model which demonstrates how a plume interacts with a plate under tensile stress,” says Gerya. Fast and powerful computers and stable algorithms programmed by the scientists themselves were required for the simulations. The researchers benefited from technical advances made and experience accumulated by the ETH professor in this field over the past ten years.

In the model, the deformations are created quickly from a geological point of view. Rift systems several kilometres deep and more than a thousand kilometres long can form after “just” two million years. The processes are therefore up to ten times faster than tectonic processes such as subduction and 50 times faster than the Alpine orogeny, for example.

Disputed idea


The idea of mantel plumes is widely disputed, with some researchers denying that they even exist. “I think it is much more likely that they do exist,” says Gerya. As is often the case in geology, especially when researching the Earth’s interior, such processes and phenomena like the existence of plumes cannot be observed directly. Furthermore, the periods over which geological processes take place are far too long for humans to experience first-hand. “So far, we have only been able to observe the effects that plumes have on the Earth’s surface and on the propagation of seismic waves in the Earth’s interior.”

The scientists are therefore reliant on good, realistic models that show the processes in a geological time lapse. How realistic the calculated simulations are depends on the parameters used. The plume-plate interaction model incorporated physical laws, the characteristics of materials in the Earth’s crust and mantle, and temperature and pressure conditions. “We know the rules, but humans generally lack the intuition to identify how they interact on geological timescales.”